The 2016 Windsor International Film Festival was filled with Canadian film, too many to see even in a 6-day festival. The list was heavy in documentaries, a tougher film motif to absorb when watching 2-3 films in a row.
Since my predictions of viability in the U.S. market have been delightfully wrong, we have simply divided the list between fictional films and documentaries.
There were only 5 French-Canadian films in the festival, counting the new one from Xavier Dolan. Other than the Dolan film, especially if the film makes the Oscar cut, is likely to cross below the 49th parallel.
Mean Dreams and Two Lovers and a Bear were strong, but flawed, films. Natasha and Unless were better than expected. Window Horses was the real pleasant surprise. Hello Destroyer was the surprise in the other direction, a severe disappointment after a fine start.
Feel free to continue the conversation in the comments section.
Window Horses is a lyrically beautiful animated film about Rosie Ming, a young poet from Vancouver, asked to read at a poetry festival in Iran. She dreams about Paris, where she has never been. But her trip to Iran takes her on a much different adventure where she learns about herself and where she comes from. Anne Marie Fleming guides us in a world with international flair where words and gestures speak volumes. Sandra Oh is delightful as our heroine. There are many great voice contributions, including Ellen Page and Don McKellar. Window Horses is a thoughtful film that anyone from any age will delight.
Chaise Galerie (Wild Run) is based on a folklore tale of a mysterious incantation, a canoe, and New Year's Eve. Most of the film involves a classic love triangle mixed in with tragic occurrences in a lumberjack camp in the late 1800s in Quebec. There is enough of a love story for the women and male bonding for the men to bring an overall satisfying film.
Natasha gives us an intimate glimpse of immigrant life in the Toronto suburbs. The 14-year-old comes to a new world from Russia because her mother is in a green card marriage. Our 16-year-old protagonist is asked to keep an eye on his new cousin, of sorts. Adult themes handled in the typical Canadian fashion: a good example of a Canadian film that could never be made in the United States. This film may take you to places you do not want to go, but you will want to know how it turns out.
Hello Destroyer has a great premise: what happens to the enforcer when he crosses the line on the ice. Kevan Funk adapted his short film Destroyer into the full-length film. The first 25-30 minutes are intriguing as we see the world from the enforcer's point of view. Jared Abrahamson takes you in this world and leaves you intrigued. However, all but the last few minutes of the rest of the film lends little to no plot advancement or drama, losing all the momentum of the beginning. If you can sit through all of that, the ending is pitch perfect. A better film if it had been 60 minutes shorter.
9 Le Film explores emptiness with 9 short films from 9 Quebecois directors. The scenes that tie the film together are the weak point. The short films stand out on their own. Belgium is the backdrop in a couple of stories but the rest look and feel Quebecois.
Bad Seeds (Les Mauvaises Herbes) is a Quebecois farce that starts off a bit rough but eventually warms up to a film about a rural farmer with an extra crop in the barn. A Montréal actor with a gambling addiction and a rural hydro worker end up working for the farmer: unlikely partners form in the face of outside threats. The film plays on differences in age, rural vs. city, gender, and sexual orientation but never being mean about any of them. If marijuana becomes legal in 2017 in Canada, this film will become more ironic.
It's Only the End of the World has the least presence of Xavier Dolan in any Xavier Dolan film to date but might be his most accessible. The all-star French cast delivers well for Dolan, especially Nathalie Baye in her second Dolan film. The films feel like a play and the Dolan-written screenplay is based off a play. The close-ups, deliberate shots out of focus, and music video endings to some scenes are the visible elements of note. Dolan plays well with the loud and quiet of the family dynamic. This is a well above-average film but you are left wondering where the Quebecois and Canada is in these films and will Dolan return back to that world. This is Canada's entry to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film but has no visible presence outside Dolan's fingerprints.
Julieta is based off the Alice Munro stories Chance, Soon, and Silence from her book Runaway. Pedro Almodovar does very well with the mother/daughter theme and clearly loves incorporating the train element from the Munro stories. Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte do a lovely job with playing Julieta at different points of her life. While not one of his best films, Julieta is a beautiful tragic story wonderfully weaved with a bit of Canada in the mix.
Mean Dreams showcases Sophie Nelissé, who goes through a lot of misery in her Canadian roles and this film is no different. Josh Wiggins plays her boyfriend in a relationship based on necessity. Bill Paxton absolutely steals this film as his own as Nelisse's cop father who had to quickly relocate the two of them to this new small town. You forget Paxton is acting in this film. Colm Feore isn't on screen too much but the mix of cerebral and manic cop is a scarier rendition of the bon cop bad cop we got used to seeing. This was my first time seeing Nelissé act in English. She is so good you will want to see her act in a bad film. Fortunately, you don't have to worry about this film because the roller coaster ride is worth the trip.
Two Lovers and a Bear features lovers with troubled pasts, also the theme in The Other Half, but this film shows how well that dynamic can work. Kim Nguyen takes us to the Arctic where Lucy and Roman are definitely in love but don't know what to do when Lucy gets a chance to go back south. The chemistry is there and necessary since the film asks a lot out of these characters. Unlike Vic and Flo Saw a Bear, there is a bear in this film. Gordon Pinsent offers sage wisdom in the role. There is a significant question as to whether the bear has too much or too little presence in the film.
Unless features Honest Ed's in Toronto as a co-star in this film based on the book from Canadian author Carol Shields. Catherine Keener, no stranger to Canadian film, gets a well-deserved starring role as the suburban mother of a young woman who holds a silent protest in front of the store on Bloor Avenue West. The father character takes on stereotypical anger but the 2 remaining sisters work hard to fill the gap at home and on the street. The unspoken dialogue in silence builds tension. Keener's character would have gone overboard but since this is a Canadian film, her take on her daughter's situation is surprisingly realistic.
Angry Inuk draws attention to the seal hunt in Canada, a topic that has intrigued me for some time. This documentary does an excellent job of answering questions I didn't know I had and asks a few more questions. The film also plays on the idea that the Inuit are upset but not very loud in their protests. Even after hearing stories in St. John's about seal hunting, Angry Inuk explained the full parameters without having to be loud.
Celtic Soul shows the different worlds of Jay Baruchel, who is from Montréal but is a fan of Glasgow Celtic, an Irish football team in Scotland. Baruchel teams up with Irish soccer journalist Eoin O'Callaghan to go off an adventure from the Bell Centre to Celtic Park. The documentary weaves the tracing Baruchel's roots to the obsession with Irish soccer. Too often the emphasis is more on football but Baruchel and O'Callaghan are an entertaining bromance. I tried relating this story to my love for Canadian football but I've been to 11 CFL stadiums vs. Baruchel's initial trip to the home field during the film. The challenge is loving a documentary about a topic you likely aren't interested in learning but the film definitely has its funny moments.
Ice Guardians will be a favorite if you love enforcers, fighting, and goons in the NHL. The storytelling is fluffy where the film veers about 3 degrees off its love fest and steers quickly back in the lovers lane. The film's consensus is that Bob Probert was the best enforcer ever. But there was no mention of the off-ice impact on Probert. Younger fans might not have realized that the reason Probert wasn't interviewed was that he died at the age of 45 in 2010.
Koneline: Our Land Beautiful takes us to the Tahltan First Nation in northwestern British Columbia. The community is trying to prevent a mine from being established. The scenery is beautiful but there isn't much life to the documentary. I found myself unfairly comparing this to Haida Gwaii: On the Edge of the World from last year. Then I noticed other filmgoers were doing the same thing.
Migrant Dreams brings us into the world of Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW). The TFW have been portrayed in the press as fast food workers in Alberta, but we find out they are also greenhouse workers in the tomato capital of Leamington, Ontario. The checklist for the abuse of farm workers is full. Workers pay money to come over from Indonesia, even though the company is responsible. The recruiter makes them pay for rent and reimbursement for bringing them over on top of the initial fee. One person is still charged rent even after moving out of the disturbing living conditions. We learn more about some of their lives, though the segment of a wedding and its preparation went long and took away from the momentum of fighting farm workers abuses. The film makes it clear that Canada needs a system where workers can complain without the fear of deportation.
Roger d'Astous is a documentary about an architect that is unusual in that it's not boring. Roger d'Austos was bold in his choices and prominent at a significant time in the history of Montréal, especially Expo 67, the Olympic Village for the 1976 Olympics, and gorgeous Metro stops. His houses have the spirit of Quebecois meets Frank Lloyd Wright, his mentor. Director Etienne Desrosiers intersperses scenes from films that feature houses designed by d'Austos. The most significant example was from L'Initiation, a prime example of maple syrup porn, though the film does not spell that out. Montréal has some remarkable architecture from the 20th century and d'Austos played a significant part. This may be the most interested documentary about an architect this side of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Spirit Unforgettable reminds you of Gord Downie since there are significant parallels between John Mann and Gord Downie as well as Spirit of the West and The Tragically Hip, especially after the Hip concert tour this summer. The documentary does focus on Mann, who is suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Pete McCormack takes us through the journey of whether the band and Mann will perform well at Massey Hall. That isn't a reason to keep watching a documentary, however. Mann's struggles are poignant and sometimes hard to absorb. The best part of the documentary is learning more about a band that has been around for a long time without that huge hit to get them more noticed. You learn a lot about what makes this band tick, a story you would want to see even if the lead singer weren't in that condition.
Films I did not get a chance to see
- Black Code (documentary: did not air at WIFF 2016)
- Driving with Selvi (little to no Canadian content)
- How to Prepare for Prison
- Live Doc 130 Year Road Trip (not a film in a traditional sense)
- A New Economy (film I wanted to see but had a conflict)
- The Apology (little to no Canadian content)
- Things to Do (2006 film reissued; might have seen at some point)
- We Can't Make the Same Mistake Twice
- Where the Universe Sings
These were the films we saw and reviewed before the festival. I did contemplate seeing The Other Half but declined to do so.
Films I saw before the festival
video credit: TIFF Trailers